Some of the marble sculptures, originally created in the 5th century BCE for the Parthenon in Athens, and plundered by the British earl of Elgin in the early 1800s.
ATHENS — The year is 1821. Greeks are fighting for their independence. In Athens, they besiege the Acropolis, a stronghold of the Turkish occupiers. As the siege grinds on, the Turks' ammunition runs short. They begin to dismantle sections of the Parthenon, prying out the 2,300-year-old lead clamps and melting them down for bullets. The Greek fighters, horrified at this defacement of their patrimony, send the Turks a supply of bullets. Better to arm their foes, they decide, than to let the ancient temple come to harm.
It is an extraordinary and unexampled gesture of self-sacrifice. But then, the Parthenon is an extraordinary and unexampled masterpiece of Western culture. Built in the 5th century BC as a shrine to Athena, goddess of war and patron of Athens, it is the acme of classical Greek architecture and sculpture, the greatest monument of the Age of Pericles. There is no more storied building in all of Europe. No Greek could see it vandalized and fail to protest.
And yet by 1821 just such a slander — that the ransacking of the Parthenon would leave Greeks unfazed — is already in circulation.
Five years earlier and 2,000 miles away, a committee of the British Parliament had conducted hearings on the huge collection of sculptures and bas-reliefs that Robert Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, had removed from the Parthenon and shipped to England. These Elgin Marbles, so called, were being offered for sale to the British Museum, and there were questions about how Elgin, former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had acquired them.
When the marbles were carried off, one committee member asked Elgin's deputy, Philip Hunt, "was any opposition shown by any class of the natives?"
"None," Hunt replied, and for 180 years that lie has endured. In taking what he took, the argument goes, Elgin performed a great service — he saved the sculptures from indifferent Greeks and primitive Turks who didn't appreciate them and wouldn't have given them the care they required.
But no Greek or Turk — or Roman or Crusader, for that matter — ever treated the Parthenon as brutally as Elgin and his minions did. The travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke happened to be on the Acropolis one day in September 1802, when Elgin's men detached a large sculpted slab (called a metope) from the temple's outer frieze.
"One of the workmen came to inform Don Battista" — Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the painter Elgin had hired to oversee the plundering of the sculptures — "that they were then going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs; but . . . a part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble, scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins."
The Turkish military governor, Clarke noted, "beheld the mischief done to the building, took his pipe from his mouth, dropped a tear, and in a supplicating tone of voice said to Lusieri: 'Telos' ['It is finished']."
Lusieri himself recalled the scene with something less than sorrow.
"I have, my lord," he wrote to Elgin, "the pleasure of announcing to you the possession of the 8th metope, that one where there is the Centaur carrying off the woman. This piece has caused much trouble in all respects, and I have even been obliged to be a little barbarous."
Melina Mercouri, the famed Greek actress and singer who became the country's minister of culture, campaigned tirelessly for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their homeland.
Barbarous indeed. Elgin's assault on the Parthenon was driven not by a desire to preserve great art but by greed: He originally intended the marbles to decorate his estate in Scotland. His men used hacksaws to chop dozens of metopes and sculptures from the edifice they had adorned for 23 centuries. For close to two centuries Elgin's booty has been locked in a London museum; for nearly all that time, conscientious Britons have lamented his theft. Lord Byron, a passionate philhellene, raged against Elgin. The ambassador's crime, he fumed in "Childe Harold," was
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spar'd:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceiv'd, whose hand prepar'd,
Aught to displace Athena's poor remains.
Outrageous, Byron thought, for the Parthenon's sculptures to be imprisoned so far from the site for which they were created. The British people, if not their government, have gradually come around to Byron's view In April 1996, a program on Britain's Channel 4 asked viewers whether the Parthenon Marbles should be returned Of 99,340 people who took part in the poll, 92.5% voted in favor of the proposal. Last fall, another poll found Britons supporting a return of the marbles by better than 2 to 1.
It is time to set right an old wrong and return these works to their birthplace. "Understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us," the late Melina Mercouri, the renowned actress and Greek minister of culture, pleaded in 1986. "They are out pride. They are our sacrifice They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. . . . They are the essence of Greekness."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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